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NEEDIEST CASES: A Helping Hand After A Mother's Death

By Aaron Donovan

January 27, 2002
Copyright © 2002
THE NEW YORK TIMES. All Rights Reserved.

In a ground-floor apartment in the Red Hook Houses in Brooklyn, a single candle burned in a bare corner of the living room, smoke drifting past photographs of Luisa Lopez with her gray hair pulled back into a ponytail.

Ms. Lopez's daughter Maritza, 47, looked toward the candle. "That's to give her light in heaven," she said.

Maritza Lopez's mother died on Nov. 11 at 88 from Alzheimer's disease, which doctors had diagnosed eight years earlier.

On a recent morning, Ms. Lopez had tears in her eyes as she recalled the onset of her mother's illness. One day, her mother had wandered away from the apartment with the family dog by her side.

"She was lost and crying," Ms. Lopez said. "She didn't know where she was. A church lady brought her home. She knocked on the door and said I had to be careful with moms because she was getting sick."

Luisa Lopez grew up in Cayey, P.R., and moved to New York when she was in her 40's. "She used to wash clothes for the rich people in Puerto Rico," her daughter said.

When she came to New York, Luisa Lopez worked as a housekeeper. She did not speak much English, but always hoped that her children would learn English and find better jobs than she had.

But things did not work out that way.

Of her four children, only one, Hector Vazquez, 56, has a job. He works at a factory in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, making lamps. Her other son, Santos Lopez Jr., who was known as Junior, died in 1993 at 42. A daughter, Sandra, 52, is developmentally disabled and diabetic. She does not work.

That leaves Maritza Lopez, who advanced as far as the ninth grade before dropping out of school, but never learned to read. Ms. Lopez has worked as a home attendant and at factories, making stuffed animals and filling new luggage with newspapers.

But she also drank and used marijuana, she said. After Junior died, her sister lapsed into a diabetic coma for three months. Maritza Lopez said she felt distraught, and could no longer handle working. Shortly after that, her mother began showing signs of Alzheimer's and got lost outside several times.

Maritza Lopez decided it was time to think about her future. "When she got sick, the doctors asked me a lot of questions that I couldn't answer," she said. "From that day on, I made it my business not to get drunk anymore."

She began to see psychiatrists regularly, and is now taking antidepressant and antipsychotic medications. Two years ago she was referred to the Brooklyn Bureau of Community Service, one of the seven local charities supported by The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund.

At the bureau, she attends group therapy sessions and activities on weekday mornings. In the afternoons, through the bureau's partnership with a nonprofit agency called Literacy Partners, Ms. Lopez learns reading, writing and math. She hopes to earn her high school equivalency degree eventually.

The plaque on her mother's grave in a cemetery in Marlboro Township, N.J., reads "Beloved Mother." Her funeral was held Nov. 21 at the New York Funeral Service in Red Hook.

The chapel, which holds 40 people, was filled to capacity, Ms. Lopez said.

"A lot of people from the neighborhood knew her," she said. "She always had people laughing."

Paul Giffone, the director of the funeral home, said that it was just a basic funeral and that they only had the necessary items. Ms. Lopez did not have enough money for the funeral and small plaque that serves as her mother's headstone, but promised to pay Mr. Giffone in full if he would give her enough time.

Mr. Giffone, whose business is in a low-income neighborhood, said it was a story he had heard many times, but he decided to go ahead with preparations for the funeral because he thought she was trustworthy.

His inclination proved accurate. "She was true to her word." he said. "She said she would have the money for me in a week, and she did."

To cover the expenses, Ms. Lopez pawned a 14-karat gold bracelet and borrowed from neighbors, she said. When a therapist at the bureau, Laura Gwinnell, learned of this, she reimbursed Ms. Lopez with $2,015 from the Neediest Cases Fund.

"We really wanted to help her out," Ms. Gwinnell said. "It eased a little of her burden, not tremendously, but financially, it helped her."

After she got the reimbursement, Ms. Lopez thanked Ms. Gwinnell and Maje Waldo, the director of her program.

"Nobody has ever helped me like this in my life," she said.

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